Film review: Occupied City : Steve McQueen’s documentary on Amsterdam’s Shoah memories

The horrors of the past that lurk in the shadows


Occupied City


The notion of the Holocaust being an inspiration for art is both well established and uncomfortable. But in the space of just a few weeks the Shoah has inspired new releases of two films whose directors push the form of film in startlingly original directions.

In The Zone of Interest Jonathan Glazer used the unblinking gaze of the camera to convey the sickening domestic lifestyle of Rudolph Hoss’s family home in Auschwitz. The image of ashes from the furnaces fertilising the Hoss flowerbeds will never be forgotten by those who see the film. And now Steve McQueen has pushed the form of documentary to convey what life was like in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation.

Based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City by McQueen’s wife Bianca Stigter, what this film has in common with Glazer’s is the way dispassionate objectivity is used as a trusted guide to atrocity. In McQueen’s film of over four hours this quality is to be found in the voice of narrator Melanie Hyams, whose calm delivery allows the bare facts of Nazi persecution to speak and shock for themselves.

However, the genius of McQueen’s approach is to accompany the intricate detail of Stigter’s research with contemporary footage of the locations in which Jews were murdered, humiliated or where they hid, usually before being discovered and murdered.

Much of it was filmed during periods of Covid lockdown and protest. Friends sit chatting on a stoop as one of them trims a hedge. Young Asian girls film video selfies of each other, and parents take winter walks with toddlers over frozen canals.

All the sound here is contemporary and ambient except for Hyams’s voice who informs us that this where Jews were forced to clean pavements with toothbrushes or that this corner of the city is where a Jewish former seamstress and prostitute was arrested for not wearing a star before being murdered in Auschwitz.

The examples of how and where Amsterdam’s 80,000 Jews were tormented wash over you in much the same way as does testimony does with Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah. But here the juxtaposition of historical research and modern footage brings the Holocaust into our time more powerfully than I have ever scene before.

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